The message at the airport says 'Welcome to Britain'. The subtext is simple, too: 'Now sod off.'

Your organisation, the English Tourist Board, may have paid for the sign to be put up, but we all bear the cost of an image that Britain shuns tourists. As you reported last week, the country spends pounds 3.1bn more on foreign travel than it earns from visitors to the UK.

The big tour operators' 1995 brochures are appearing on the travel agents' shelves - opening shots in an annual campaign for custom more ferocious than even the scramble for sunbeds by the pool. The outbound travel industry is in excellent shape, supplying millions of us with an affordable, high-quality product.

Perhaps, Adele, the ETB flies you around the world in business class. Next time, take a charter from Luton or Manchester to see why the Costa del Sol appeals more than Cleethorpes. The days of obsolete aircraft jam-packed with punters are gone just as surely as the Olde England image you promote. You can travel cheaply and comfortably to almost any corner of the world. The welcome (and weather) is likely to be warm, and consumer satisfaction, in what is now the world's biggest industry, is regarded as paramount.

When you return from your week in the sun, put yourself in the position of a new arrival to these shores. Try it, as I did one recent morning at Gatwick airport.

Bleary travellers bound for London have to battle with a rail system entangled with political dogma. You just want a quick journey to the capital; but the Government insists that you first evaluate the competing claims of the Gatwick Express, Network SouthCentral and Thameslink, all running trains on the same rails to London.

Eventually (on non-strike days) you reach Victoria - home of Britain's biggest tourist information office. Tourist offices in all the world's great cities hand out city plans to new arrivals, recognising that a map guides a person and their purse. Ask for one in London, though, and you will be told to use a dispensing machine, charging pounds 1 for a flimsy publication.

Your hotel, when you finally track it down, may be like the one I stayed in recently: yes, there was a tiny television, bolted high up on the nicotine-yellow wall, but to watch it you have to stick 50p in the slot. Fawlty Towers could only have been located in England.

You call for a cut in VAT to stimulate tourism, but the problem is one of tact, not tax. Unless we can put some substance behind the 'Welcome' signs, our share of the pounds 210bn tourism industry will continue to dwindle.

Even when almost everyone has gone elsewhere, though, one city will still supply a sliver of invisible income. The couple I chatted to as we stood amid the litter in the guard's van between Gatwick and Victoria were sanguine about the shabby treatment that greeted their first visit to Britain. 'We're used to this shit. We're from New York.'

Simon Calder